Twenty years ago today, the United States invaded a neutral country that hadn't taken a shot at us for over a decade. This had predictable results for the region, including making our long-time adversary Iran a major player:
The invasion “was the original sin,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank. “It helped Iran bolster its position by being a predator in Iraq. It’s where Iran perfected the use of violence and militias to obtain its goals. It eroded the U.S.’s image. It led to fragmentation in the region.”
All of that was enabled by the political changes that the American invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, set in motion. Later on, the 2014 takeover of a large swathe of northern Iraq by the Islamic State terrorist group prompted Iraq to turn to Iran as well as the United States for help, cementing Iran’s grip.
Under the Iraqi dictatorship, the Sunni minority had formed the base of Mr. Hussein’s power; once he was killed, Iran set up loyal militias inside Iraq. It also went on to dismay Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies and Israel by supporting proxies and partners, such as the Houthi militia in Yemen, that brought violence right to their doorsteps.
People on my side of things in 2003 felt incandescent rage at President Bush and Secretary of State Powell lying through their teeth about Iraq's supposed cache of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Robert Wright points out that the invasion's premises were already dishonest, since the United Nations was already there doing what we claimed our invasion would do:
The fog of time makes it easy to lose sight of one of the most amazing facts about that war: In order to invade Iraq and start looking for weapons of mass destruction, the US had to first kick out UN inspectors who were in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction.
And they’d been looking intensively! Over the previous four months they had inspected more than 500 sites and found no WMDs and no signs of a WMD program.
Given that those inspected sites included the sites US intelligence agencies had deemed most likely to yield paydirt, this result—zero-for-500—suggested to the attentive observer that information coming from the US government about Saddam Hussein’s activities was not to be trusted.
But let’s leave that aside. Suppose the US government hadn’t been thus discredited—suppose that on the eve of the invasion there was still good reason to think that WMDs were out there somewhere. Why not let the UN inspectors—who had been allowed by the Iraqi government to inspect every site they had asked to inspect—keep looking? There just isn’t an answer to this question that holds water.
By dividing our attention between Iraq and Afghanistan, we failed to accomplish any of our claimed long-term goals in either country—and made the world a much more dangerous place in the process.